Joan Halifax Roshi, director of Upaya in Santa Fe in a video I saw not long ago says something to the effect of, “We have sex education in this country but we don’t have death education.” Amen to that. I have always been struck how babies are welcomed into the world with great anticipation and celebration, but dying people are as though the consummate national embarrassment. Ironically we all belong to the category of dying person the moment we are conceived.
What would death education look like? For one, we would be taught from an early age that at some point our life will end. There would be no morbid superstitions about this reality communicated to us, no taboo in talking about death and exploring its implications. Death would be treated the same way we treat any other subject of investigation: with curiosity, respect, and attention. For those who think we’ll soon have the technology in place for physical immortality, consider whether it’s this body you want to stay in forever.
It is a certainty that we each will die. Some rare individuals can perceive the time and causes of their death, but most of us cannot tap into the awareness of when or how we will die. So given that it is a fact that we will die, and that we don’t know when that will be, we can use this knowledge as something not to be in despair over, but something that can inform our present choices.
Knowing that I will definitely die, and not knowing when that might be, what choices do I make? How do I relate to people differently? How do I relate to my circumstances, opportunities, loved ones, the world? There will come a time when our collective denial about death and dying will be seen as one of the worst, most disempowering phobias plaguing humanity. We will come to work with death and dying as an integral part of existing, as an art that can be mastered, and we will learn the difference between dying well and dying poorly. And all of this will have huge implications for our continuation as a species.